Chilling effect of egg freezing

by Ruth Nichol / 08 April, 2016
“Social” egg freezing to delay child-rearing may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Tech giants Apple and Facebook were the first to offer free egg freezing as a job perk to attract more female staff. Now the US Army is doing the same in an attempt to encourage women to stay in the military during their prime childbearing years.

When US Defence Secretary Ash Carter announced the policy in January, he said the pilot programme – which includes free sperm freezing for male soldiers – would give military staff “greater flexibility” about when they start a family.

It sounds simple enough – a chance to beat that pesky biological clock by harvesting your eggs while they’re still young and storing them to use once your career is established or Mr Right has come along.

But it’s not quite that easy. John Peek, group operations manager at Fertility Associates, says egg freezing makes sense for women who are about to start cancer treatment that may affect their fertility. In fact, the procedure is now publicly funded for childless New Zealand women with cancer who are aged 39 or under.

“The alternative is that you may not have any eggs once your treatment is finished,” says Peek. “It’s an optimistic thing to do for the long term.”

That has certainly been the case for Aucklander Amber Arkell, who had eggs harvested shortly before starting chemotherapy for breast cancer in February. Arkell, 26, who is blogging about her experience on a Facebook page called When Things Went Tits Up, hopes she will eventually be able to conceive naturally. But she’s pleased to know she has a back-up.

“I have five perfect mature eggs – I’m really happy about it.”

However, Peek says egg freezing makes less sense for healthy women with no known fertility issues looking for an insurance policy against future childlessness – what’s known as social egg freezing. For starters, it’s expensive. It costs up to $11,000 for one round of ovary stimulation, egg harvesting and egg freezing. Some women need more than one round to get enough eggs.

Storage costs another $264 a year, and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment further down the track will add another $4400 to the bill.

Even then there are no guarantees you’ll get pregnant. Freezing eggs is much more difficult than freezing embryos, which is now a routine part of the IVF process. A new flash-freezing technique has improved egg survival rates, but too few have been thawed and fertilised to know what proportion of them will produce a baby. ­Worldwide, about 5000 babies have been born using frozen eggs, compared with about five million using fresh eggs. In New Zealand only a handful of babies have been born from frozen eggs.

“Egg-freezing technology is still relatively young so it’s hard to know how successful it is.”

Recent American figures show that about a quarter of frozen eggs that are subsequently thawed result in live births. The success rates are much lower for eggs from women in their mid-to-late-thirties – 17% for eggs from a 35-year-old and just 13% for eggs harvested once a woman is 40.

As Peek points out, the odds don’t really stack up as an insurance policy. “With insurance, you pay a modest amount of money to protect yourself from a calamitous thing, while with egg freezing you’re paying a lot of money for a very modest chance of a payout.”

That hasn’t stopped many fertility clinics overseas from aggressively marketing social egg freezing, although the number of women opting to have the procedure is still low. It’s even less popular in New Zealand. Peek says about 20% of the 120 or so women who have had their eggs frozen at a Fertility Associates clinic have done so for social reasons.

Women thinking of joining them may not necessarily welcome his advice. He suggests that rather than trying to delay childbearing through egg freezing, they should ask their GP for an anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) test to check their remaining egg supply. Then they should start thinking seriously about how – and when – they could have children without using reproductive technology.

“Reproductive technology is brilliant for people with problems, but people need to stop thinking of it as an alternative [to natural conception] and see it as a backup.”

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